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Sardines Get a Modern Makeover

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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

MONTEREY BAY, Calif. -- "Revolutionary" isn't the first word you'd use to describe Mark Shelley. The California filmmaker drives a Toyota Prius, for goodness' sake. But Shelley is a key member of a culinary counterculture plot to reintroduce sardines to the American palate.

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They call themselves the Sardinistas. Along with Shelley, the conspirators are an environmentalist, a veteran commercial fisherman and a semi-retired entrepreneur and marine biologist. For several years, the "cell" has been meeting informally to gorge on sardines and wine. Now, the Sardinistas are forging a plan to produce canned sardines and prepared foods. Their message: These are not your grandfather's sardines.

"We want to reinvent the sardine and this time do it a little more thoughtfully," Shelley, 58, explained at recent propaganda lunch here on Cannery Row, which once served as headquarters for the California sardine fishery. "We want to value what these fish can give to us from an ecological standpoint and a health standpoint. And we think there are real ways to enjoy them."

Sardines have the blessing of environmentalists, who applaud California's sustainably managed fishery, and nutritionists, who praise the oily fish's high level of omega-3 fatty acids. High-end chefs also have recently begun to rediscover the pleasure of fresh sardines, which now appear on chic menus across the country: In Los Angeles, Sona chef David Myers serves them with ginger, garlic and ponzu sauce. At Dino in Cleveland Park, they are pan-roasted with fennel.

The Sardinistas have their work cut out for them, however. For nearly half a century, most Americans have grimaced at the thought of a smellier, seafood version of Spam. With bones, to boot.

Sardines weren't always such a hard sell. For the first half of the 20th century, they were an American staple. The booming California fishery, headquartered in Monterey Bay, helped feed millions of soldiers in two world wars and employed thousands of European and Asian immigrants. At its peak in the late 1930s, the California sardine fishery processed more than 700,000 tons of sardines annually.

Within the decade, however, the sardine population mysteriously began to decline. And by the 1950s, it had collapsed. Overfishing certainly contributed; sardines were not only processed for food but also ground into animal feed and oil. But there's evidence that natural boom-and-bust ocean cycles also were a factor. Whatever the case, tuna soon replaced sardines as a cheap go-to meal.

By the 1980s, sardines had begun to reappear in Pacific waters. But they did not make their way to American plates. At the Sardine Factory, a popular Monterey Bay restaurant, Shelley remembers ordering canned sardines that were so delicious he asked the server to show him the tin. "A product of Latvia," he said with a laugh. "Here on Cannery Row, we're eating sardines from Latvia."

There are many reasons to praise the lowly sardine. The species is on the Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch green lists because it is abundant and fished in environmentally friendly ways. Quotas are carefully managed: Fishermen are allowed only 80,000 tons annually, just over 10 percent of the peak haul in the 1930s.

Environmentalists also promote sardines because they object to the way they are now used. The Monterey Bay Aquarium estimates that more than 80 percent of the Pacific sardine catch is used to feed bluefin tunas raised in Mexico and Australia. The problem: It takes at least seven pounds of sardines to produce one pound of tuna, a ratio that they say doesn't make sense. "Eating tuna and salmon is the functional equivalent of eating grizzly bears and cougars on land," said Sardinista Mike Sutton, who directs the aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans. "We need to eat lower down the food chain to be sustainable."

Eating smaller fish also offers health benefits. Because sardines eat mostly plants, they do not accumulate high levels of mercury or PCBs the way larger, carnivorous fish such as tuna or salmon do. Sardines also live shorter lives: six years vs. about 10 for tuna, meaning less time in the ocean to absorb hazardous toxins. Those factors, say the Sardinistas, plus high levels of protein and omega-3s, make sardines an excellent option for pregnant women, children and eco-conscious college students on a budget.

Intellectually, it's a strong case, but to succeed, the Sardinistas must overcome a big cultural hurdle. Sardines look like fish. And most Americans would rather not be reminded that the meat they eat was once a living creature. "The reason we eat big predators [such as tuna and salmon] is not because they are big predators; it's because they can be cut into steaks," said Alton Brown, host of Food Network's "Good Eats," who attended the Sardinista lunch. "Americans: We're people of the cut, not the carcass."

Brown is an admitted sardine fanatic. When he travels, he takes one can of the fish for every day on the road and a pair of chopsticks with which to eat them. After 10 years on television, Brown said, he has finally received permission to produce a show on small fish. In it, he plans to take his signature matter-of-fact approach in explaining how and why to eat sardines. "We need to teach our children that, yes, it had a face. And, yes, it had a life. And here, it has fins," he said. "Bluefin tuna is like crack cocaine if it's good. But we all know what happens if you try to live on crack cocaine."

Chefs, too, are doing their part to acquaint diners with sardines. At Washington's Jaleo, José Andrés presents the fish grilled with garlic and parsley, and in New York, chef Michael Psilakis plates them alongside a chopped Greek salad at Kefi. At Dino, the sardines are roasted whole and served with fennel, but the chef will remove the heads upon request. "The heads scare people," said owner Dean Gold.

The Sardinistas enjoy the small fish's strong flavor. But they are working to make it more universally palatable. To that end, Shelley is experimenting with canning his own sardines, which he hopes one day could take the place of canned tuna, and testing recipes for frozen foods with broad appeal. Most promising so far are his pot stickers, a mix of sardines, ginger, garlic and chopped vegetables, and similarly flavored sardine patties, which aim to be an eco-friendly version of salmon and crab cakes. The next step is to write a business plan and raise enough money to get the venture off the ground.

"I'm not a chef. And if I can make this stuff taste good, imagine what someone who does this for a living could do," Shelley said. The goal is to "make people raise their eyebrows and say, 'I can't believe these are sardines.' "


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